[NB: As with last
week, I have slightly expanded the selection of verses in the Lectionary. As will
become clear from my first point below, verse 4 is critical to understanding
One of our children’s favourite shows on CBeebies
is ‘Big Cook, Little
Cook’, in which two chefs – one normal size, one tiny enough to live on
kitchen work surfaces – run a café. In each episode, someone comes to the café
for a meal. They wonder what to cook. They need a story to guide them, so they
get out a book. It is called, ‘Little Cook’s Adventures in the Big World.’
I suggest to you that we too need a story to guide us. But ours
is called, ‘Jesus’ Adventures in the Big World’ (or the Bible if you want to be
pedantic!). And here in John 4, Jesus is having one of his adventures in the big
world. He spends most of his time in the world, not the synagogue, going to
people and not waiting for them to come to him. And here he’s very definitely
in the big world. We’ll use some features of this adventure to plot what Jesus
is up to, and how we might respond.
Here’s how Jesus arrives:
But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan
city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son
Joseph. (Verses 4-5)
Did he have to go through Samaria? Jesus is travelling back from
Judea to Galilee. He chooses the most direct route, which would take three days
on foot. However, Jews preferred to avoid Samaria. This meant a detour that
doubled the time to six days.
But Jesus doesn’t intend to avoid the Samaritans. Nor will he
avoid a woman, let alone one whose reputation means she comes to draw water at
the hottest time of day, avoiding the other women of the village.
So let me advocate the idea that we too are called to cross
boundaries in our journey through the big world. We may want to take long
detours to avoid people of dubious reputation, but we break the heart of Jesus
when we do so. Too often, we in the Church have been known as holier-than-thou,
self-righteous types, who look down with disapproval on those whose lifestyles
don’t match our moral standards. I would not say for one moment that we should
dilute our ethical convictions, but when they have become something that makes
us avoid other people for fear of contamination, then we have lost something
vital from the Gospel.
Equally, if we always expect others to come to us, we have
lost a vital dimension. The Gospel is not about ‘How can we get them to come
here?’ It is about how we find ways to cross boundaries and share God’s love
with people who are different from us.
Who are the people we would like to avoid? They may be
specific individuals, or certain groups or classes of people. If we would cross
the road to avoid them, might we hear the voice of Jesus saying, that’s not how
I travelled on my journey?
2. Drawing Water from
So Jesus meets the woman in the heat of the day at Jacob’s Well, when nobody
else is there. You would think that as a traveller he would have a skin bucket
with him, in order to obtain water. But he hasn’t. In crossing multiple
boundaries and asking the woman for water, he sets up a conversation that goes
way beyond what she expects. It’s not the first time in John’s Gospel that
Jesus says something in a conversation that the other person takes literally,
when Jesus has a deeper meaning. It’s happened in chapter three with Nicodemus
and being ‘born again.’ Now it happens here, with ‘living water.’
The woman doesn’t get it. She’d like living water. Then she
wouldn’t have to come here in the heat of the day, every day, avoiding the gossiping
eyes of the village.
We don’t get it, either. ‘Living water’ is a pun. It’s ‘running
water.’ The woman is after an uninterruptible supply of water, much as we have
from our taps. Then she can avoid the shame of coming alone at lunchtime to
Jacob’s Well. Her concern is to deal with her shame.
Jesus, led by the Spirit, knows this. He can cleanse her of
her shame. ‘Go, call your husband, and come back,’ he says (verse 16). She replies
that she has no husband, and Jesus says that is true: she has been married five
times, and the man she is with now is not her husband (verses 17-18).
Jewish culture allowed a person a maximum of three marriages
in their lifetime. Is
she a woman of lax morality? I certainly used to think so. Then I learned that
only the men could institute divorce proceedings.
They could do so for the most trivial of reasons. It seems likely, then, that
this woman, who has married five times and is now cohabiting, is someone who
has been treated like dirt by men since her early teens when she was first
Jesus doesn’t condemn her or call her to repentance. He doesn’t
even warn her to sin no more, as he does to the woman caught in adultery. He has
the holiness not to overlook her chaotic and broken lifestyle, but he also has
the compassion not to condemn her.
We have a similar call. One of the things people dislike
most about Christians is the self-righteous stuff. We can do a good impression
of a Pharisee. So when we cross boundaries, we have another task. To help
people find the living water of God, in which Jesus supplies total satisfaction
for life, our boundary crossing has to be done with grace. We are not merely
crossing boundaries in order to launch sorties against enemies. Nor are we
doing so to tell people that sin doesn’t matter. We cross boundaries so that
people may know the healing love of God in Christ. Is that our aim? Are our
hearts aligned with such an aim?
3. Two Mountains
‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet,’ responds the woman. She then launches into
a question about the location of true worship. Should she worship on Mount
Gerizim, according to her Samaritan tradition, or in Jerusalem, according to
Jewish teaching (verses 19-20)?
What do we make of this question? I used to think the woman
was employing a diversionary tactic. Jesus has got too close to home with
knowing about her pattern of broken relationships, and now she tries a
theological controversy to move him off this painful subject.
I no longer think she was doing that. If she were, then
wouldn’t Jesus have steered her back to a conversation about sin and
repentance? But he doesn’t. He takes up her question, and says that both
alternatives are inadequate. Salvation comes from the Jews, he says, but
location isn’t the issue any more: since God is spirit, true worship is in
spirit and in truth (verses 21-24). In the coming decades, armies would destroy
the precious locations for worship: the Jewish Temple in AD 70 by Rome and the
Samaritan temple by some Jewish forces in AD 138.
However, by saying that true worship of God is in spirit and
in truth is a way of Jesus saying to the woman, the door is open to all. You don’t
have to travel to a holy place. Distance, geography or race cannot limit you. The
barriers are down. Heaven is breaking in here, there and everywhere. Respond,
And the woman wants to. She doesn’t understand, and longs
for the promised Messiah who will explain all things (verse 25) – only to find
she is in the middle of an audience with him (verse 26). If the ‘spirit’ aspect
of God’s character means we can worship anywhere, the ‘truth’ is its focus on
Jesus the Christ. Worshipping anywhere does not mean worshipping anyhow or
anyone. Always the goal is Jesus.
We see that when the woman disappears, back to the village. ‘Come
and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the
Messiah, can he?’ she says (verse 29). She doesn’t have it all sewn up, and
neither need we. We cannot delay answering the call to go on the journey of
mission, because we don’t have everything sorted in our minds. All we need is
to have had an encounter with Jesus. That is enough. It is enough for worship,
and it is enough for mission. Neither worship nor mission is to be reduced to a
speciality for the enthusiasts. Rather, Jesus may encounter us anywhere, and
the appropriate response is twofold: worship and mission.
4. Food for the
The disciples come back from their trip. All they can think about is food. However,
Jesus already has food – not a secret stash or sandwiches, but the satisfaction
of doing his Father’s will by being on his mission (verses 31-34). In fact,
Jesus is so committed to the Father’s mission that ordinary time lapses between
sowing and harvest are shortened (verses 35-38).
It’s a question of what ultimately satisfies a person. The disciples,
obsessed with food, have their eyes no higher than any other ordinary mortal
does. There are many examples today. People believe sex, more money, a new car,
the latest gadget, another pair of shoes, a worthwhile relationship or some
product that the advertisers tell us we deserve, will satisfy their lives. We
Christians, like the disciples of Jesus, are just as easily caught up in these
things. ‘If I can just have this thing, I will be happy.’ However, it is as illusory
as chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We even do it in a
churchy, ‘spiritual’ way: if I read this book, go to this conference, or if we
implement this strategy for church life, then everything will feel good. No, it
won’t. When we think like that, we are the biggest fools of all.
Jesus gives food that is satisfying, just as he gives living
water. You could relate this to his wilderness temptations, where he said that
we do not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth
of God. Here he is, living on the word the Father has given him by willingly
participating in his mission. This sustains him.
There is nothing like it for us, too. Here’s how it plays
out for me. I’ve never seen myself as an evangelist. My calling has always been
more to the church – to teach the faith and to help people discover God’s
vision. However, despite that, I can find Christians the most frustrating of
all people! (Maybe that’s how you view ministers!) I find it refreshing to help
my wife develop friendships with people in the community. Someone in a
difficult marriage; another person whose daughter is struggling; others facing
major cultural adjustments or living in a chaotic way. I can’t give away
confidences, but every now and then, Gospel opportunities arise, because we’ve
been willing to cross the boundaries, point to the living water and expect to
find Jesus everywhere. When we do, there is something profoundly satisfying about
As I say, it doesn’t always come naturally to me. Too often,
I have been the kind of Christian who would adopt judgmental attitudes against
non-Christians. However, in recent years, God has been teaching me about the
importance of crossing boundaries instead of self-righteously expecting people
to make all the running in my direction. He has been showing me the need to do
this with grace, and that he will go ahead of me, because he is everywhere to
be worshipped. When we walk in his ways, following the example of Jesus, there
is a satisfaction in our souls that no gimmick, no gadget, no possession and no
technique can provide.
Isn’t it time to follow Jesus?
Burridge, p 69.
Roman law was different, and allowed women to divorce men.
Burridge, p 70.